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COVID-19 and Personal Grief: Advice from Experts

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Maricela Arreguin Mejia (L) and her brother Nestor Arreguin mourn the death of their father Gilberto Arreguin Camacho, 58, due to COVID-19 during his burial at a cemetery on New Year's Eve, December 31, 2020.
Maricela Arreguin Mejia (L) and her brother Nestor Arreguin mourn the death of their father Gilberto Arreguin Camacho, 58, due to COVID-19 during his burial at a cemetery on New Year's Eve, December 31, 2020. Gilberto Arreguin Camacho spent over three weeks in the hospital before his death, according to his son. "He had so much love in his heart for his family," his son Nestor Arreguin said. "He always had advice for you when you needed it. He was a really hard working man. He worked his whole life. Coming home late, working so hard to provide for his family. Im going to try and follow his legacy."  (Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images)

Part of our series 'A Year of COVID,' marking a year of the coronavirus pandemic

A year after the pandemic began, more than 2.6 million people globally have died from the coronavirus.

In the United States, COVID-19 has killed more than 530,000 people. And within California, more than 55,000 people have died.

These vast numbers remain hard to grasp — each one representing not just a person, but also a community of grieving friends and family.

Much has been written of both individual grief and the ongoing feelings of collective loss during this period.  But what should be done about the indescribable brain fog and empty-heartedness that grief leaves a person with?

"All the ways that you cope and grieve with horrifying losses are kind of stripped during a crisis like this," said journalist Sam Levin on KQED Forum's recent show dedicated to the grief and trauma wrought by the COVID-19 death toll. "And it makes it just exponentially harder and really is sort of a trauma on top of trauma."

Levin lost his grandmother, Debbie Hennessy, to COVID-19 in January, and wrote a moving tribute to her in The Guardian.

For California Assemblyman James Ramos, D-Highland, who is the first Native American elected to the state Assembly, there’s a different sense of a loss when it comes to COVID-19 and elders.

“When we lose them, it's a piece of our history and a piece of our knowledge that goes with them," Ramos — a member of the of the Serrano/Cahuilla tribe in San Bernardino County — told KQED Forum.

"There's things that aren't written down," Ramos said. And with each human loss, "a thread of the culture" is lost too, he said.

For those experiencing grief during the pandemic — and particularly Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC), who have been so disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus — what are some concrete ways individuals can work through the enormity of losing someone to COVID-19?

KQED spoke with three experts who all professionally focus on end-of-life care and approach grieving from differing perspectives:

  • Oceana Sawyer, an end-of-life doula in the Bay Area,
  • Roshni Kavate, healer and activist, and former palliative care nurse
  • Erika Felix, a licensed psychologist and associate professor of clinical psychology at UC Santa Barbara

And keep in mind when reading this: as Felix noted on KQED Forum, “grief is not a one size fits all thing." Consider and take what works for you and leave the rest. Additional resources on processing grief are listed at the bottom of this article.

Choose Someone You Can Really Talk To

“The first thing I would suggest is the person get themselves a therapist,” said Oceana Sawyer,  who as an end-of-life doula provides supportive care to people during the dying process.

Sawyer hosts a virtual "death cafe" for the  BIPOC community, as well as events focusing on grief and the Black experience. It's important, Sawyer stresses, that the support you seek comes with the cultural competency you need.

"You want to be able to communicate your experience to someone who can actually hear it and receive it, and reflect it back to you in its entirety," Sawyer said — emphasizing the particular importance for BIPOC folks of doing so without the "need for code switching." Ideally, anyone who is sharing their experiences should not be "impacted by microaggressions at a moment in time where you're at your most vulnerable," she added.

The importance of cultural competency in professional support was echoed on KQED Forum's show by Los Angeles Times reporter Brittny Mejia, who has been personally been working through the death of her own loved ones from COVID-19 while simultaneously reporting on the pandemic in L.A.

Mejia said her therapist is also Mexican American, which has "been a huge help to me that she kind of understands my family dynamic."  "She gets it" Mejia said — emphasizing that "it makes a huge difference for me to have a therapist like her."

All of this matters, Oceana Sawyer says, because the communities of color she works with have been dying from the virus at disproportionate rates. And that means their grief is also happening in “the context of medical racism, which doesn't provide adequate care for Black and brown Indigenous bodies,” she says — and all amid the “ongoing racial oppression and white supremacy” in the United States.

"For us, it's more complex," Sawyer said. "All these different layers are happening."

Resources on finding culturally competent affordable therapy can be found below. (Gender Spectrum Collection/Broadly)

Remember That Grief Might Not Feel (or Look) Like You Think

Erika Felix echoes the importance of having a support system. “We all know that there's no words that can take away such a profound loss,” she said — and still, she notes, we need our networks.

If it's someone close to you going through grief, Felix recommends checking in, but staying adaptable on the support you offer.

“Maybe they want to talk that day, maybe they don't," Felix said. "Maybe it just feels good to have somebody remember that they're going through this and grieving." And just knowing that you're “willing to walk through it with them,” she added, is important for a person's healing.

While the five stages of grief may be more well known — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance — the fact that everyone goes through them differently can be hard to reconcile with close family and friends.

"We might go through phases of depression and eventually come out at the other end with acceptance and being able to hold the memories and move forward," said Felix.

But people also move in and out of each stage in many different ways, Felix said. "Depending on somebody’s culture and family, and how they process emotions, even within families, grief can look very different," she said.

Each person's grief and each family's grief may look different and go through many continual phases. If you're the one experiencing grief, be aware of this and be kind to yourself. And if you're the one offering support, know that a loved one's grief might not take the form or process you anticipated.

Allow Your Body to Feel Your Grief 

"Grief is a full-body sport," says Roshni Kavate, who grew up in India and worked for several years as an ICU and palliative care nurse in the Bay Area. "It shows up in your body and in your heart."

Kavate now focuses on reclaiming nourishing practices rooted in ancestral wisdom, often working with people who are experiencing grief by mixing art and ritual.

Kavate says she left nursing after 12 years because she wanted to see a greater sense of caring in the bereavement process. "I want to do it with beauty and intention; with celebrating," she said. And creating or recreating personal rituals for your body and brain to enact can allow those experiencing grief to rethink the shattered sense of meaning in their lives and regain a sense of control, she says.

“You cannot control grief. It dictates when it’s going to show up,” Kavate said. But with ritual, she said, "you can get curious in that space."

She also sees it as a cyclical process. Healing is often thought of with an endpoint, but as Kavate says, you don’t need to try to get to the end — since there is no end. “If we can really feel the depth of emotion in our body," she notes, that will help the process.

Oceana Sawyer also highlights how both movement and sound —  known as somatic or vocal processing — can be a way of moving through grief. This can be particularly powerful for BIPOC grievers, she says.

“The whole thing about the full-body wailing — the singing, the moving, the dancing … It's part of how Black bodies actually metabolize grief,” Sawyer said. “When you move your body in a certain way — that rocking, that swing, you add a hum to it — those things together actually calm the nervous system, and allow the body to process big emotional experiences.”

Listen to how you speak to yourself. Are you showing the same understanding and compassion that you'd extend to a friend? (Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels)

Move Your Body Into Nature

Paying attention to your grief through journaling or meditation has huge value, Sawyer said, "but I really recommend that people start moving around: specifically for BIPOC folks."

Sawyer recommends people notice and observe their body, "meditate, move — get out in nature and just start moving, noticing how it feels in your body, where the emotions are in your body," she says.

Kavate agrees that nature is a wonderful remedy. This could be something as simple as taking care of a plant for a kitchen garden, taking a hike in nature, or a trip to the beach — anything you can do to tend to life, while going through loss.

“When [we] are grieving, we don’t take care of ourselves,” Kavate said. "An antidote to grief is life,” she said, and urges ways to find “a deeper kinship with living beings, and life.”

Consider Connecting With Family and Ancestral Forms of Healing

Delving deeper into ancestral wisdom can be useful for immigrants as well as first, second and third generation Americans, Kavate says. The question she advises asking: "What in your culture was medicine?"

If it was food-based, this could be answered by eating your grandmother's favorite lamb meatballs, for example, or eating a mango. Kavate encourages people to particularly look into foods that bring you comfort — which could be traditional medicinal food, like stews, beans, rice and lentils. The smell of these foods, Kavate says, can also be powerful.

“Grief is really a calling for more joy and more life,” she said — and it's important for people to “tend” to what is calling us and our bodies. “Our bodies are deeply intelligent and they have intelligence in how to navigate grief," she adds.


Finally, Say No to Guilt

As Felix told KQED Forum, when it comes to housing inequities and work, sometimes people — particularly BIPOC folks — are given “impossible choices on survival" in terms of navigating exposure, work and a constantly changing and mutating viruses.

“You could do everything right, and somebody could still get it [COVID-19],” Felix said.

While guilt is understandable, Felix says it's about not letting it stop a person moving forward. To reframe the perspective, Felix poses the question of how someone might treat a friend in a similar situation, — “what would they say to their best friend to comfort them?"



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